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Ikea's Tradfri line is a good and inexpensive gateway to Apple's HomeKit system

As the worldwide furniture chain expands its HomeKit range, Ikea could be how Apple finally gets its system into the mainstream — if the devices are good enough.

Ikea has a bigger presence worldwide than it does in the United States — there are 50 stores in the US and another 374 everywhere else. Ikea doesn't just sell the products, but it makes its own, and a growing number of them are HomeKit-compatible.

HomeKit isn't flawless, but it's so good that the odds are that if you try it, you'll get hooked. You have to know about it in order to try it, though, and so far not only has HomeKit been dwarfed by the publicity over alternatives such as Amazon's own range, it's also been expensive.

This is why Ikea adopting HomeKit could be extremely good for Apple. Not only is it now stocking a range of HomeKit devices but most of them — though not all — are cheaper than we've ever seen. The combination of these two factors is going to mean both that more people are simply made aware of HomeKit and that more people can afford them.

Ikea's forthcoming Smart Shades

In some cases, the Ikea HomeKit range isn't just cheaper, it can be much cheaper for a system including smart bulbs and power outlets that it changes your buying decision. HomeKit stops being this serious investment and becomes something you can try out first.

Only, that makes Ikea crucial. If people's first experience of HomeKit is poor, they won't come back.

Living with Ikea Tradfri

Ikea's Tradfri range has various HomeKit bulbs and that's truly the company's focus. Even though it also has HomeKit motion detectors and mains outlets, those products are all shelved in the Lighting department next to the bulbs.

It was also due to have a window blind, called Smart Shades, but that's been delayed. In the meantime, we tested the chief components of Tradfri, the bulbs and the outlets.

The short version is that these are not cheap HomeKit products in the sense that they're knock-offs or poorly made. They are inexpensive yet solid devices. We were sent a bulb and what's called a Gateway, Ikea's equivalent to other systems' bridges, but we bought the outlets and we are going to buy more.

Ikea's $10 HomeKit-enabled outlet
Ikea's $10 HomeKit-enabled outlet is a bargain

What strikes you first about Ikea's Tradfri is its philosophy. Seriously, Ikea has a different way of thinking about HomeKit than other vendors. Ultimately, it does offer an app and you can control it via Apple's Home, but that's not Ikea's first thought.

Phillips, for instance, seems to expect you to be an iOS user who wants to control your Hue devices via an app, and that's pretty standard for a HomeKit manufacturer. Ikea, however, expects you to want to chiefly control your bulbs though a physical switch.

When you buy most Tradfri bulbs, you get one of various types of these physical switches, which Ikea also calls steering devices. While there are different sorts, each one is both a setup device and a remote control. You pair one with a bulb and you then pair it with a gateway. But then afterwards you use them as a physical dial for dimming a bulb, or switching it on and off.

You can see how this fits with the company being so much a furniture and home store, you can see how it might fit with its existing audience. You go to Ikea to buy physical items like tables and lamps, so here's exactly that again. It even includes a wall mount so that you can make this steering device appear like a regular dimmer switch.

First installation is rough

This philosophy of putting a physical device first means, though, that sometimes the HomeKit side of this feels like an afterthought.

Apple's Home app recognizes HomeKit devices via the serial number printed on them or on their packaging, but none of Ikea's Tradfri devices have that. Instead, the Ikea app shows you a HomeKit code you can use — but only after you have schlepped through a long setup sequence with the steering device.

This is going to sound like a joke about Ikea's famous flat-pack assembly instructions, but it's true. These Tradfri devices come with instructions done in the same simplistic way as the furniture ones and they are also the same in that you can understand them completely — afterwards.

Just some of the parade of different errors and oddities we got during installation
Just some of the parade of different errors and oddities we got during installation

It took us many, many, many exasperating goes to set up our first bulb, Most of that was our fault as we struggled to forget how Phillips Hue does it, and instead get to grips with this idea of pairing Ikea's steering device to gateway, the bulb to this steering unit, and the gateway to HomeKit.

Your mileage may vary, and we'll tell you now that the second time we went through it was much better. That's because we did learn a few things that the instructions didn't tell us, though, starting with how each step in the process is a lot slower than you expect.

It involves holding the steering device next to the bulb or the gateway and waiting, but it's so slow that you'll assume you've done something wrong and will start again. Stick with it.

Also, the instructions do change depending on what's already been paired to what. So after several times holding the steering device next to the bulb, we missed that the instructions had changed to telling us to now hold it next to the gateway instead.

Even then, though, we got to a stage where the Ikea app said that it had found the bulb — and then that no, it hadn't. At another point, while installing this first bulb, the Ikea app insisted that we had already installed four before it and that none had been switched on for 348 days.

The much happier state of (L-R), Ikea's app, Apple's Home, and the third-party Home 3 app, after installation
The much happier state of (L-R), Ikea's app, Apple's Home, and the third-party Home 3 app, after installation

What probably happened is that we managed to pair the steering device to the bulb and then before anything else would work, we had to unpair it. Like most HomeKit bulbs, you can reset a bulb by switching it on and off six times in quick succession. We did this, looking like a lemon in a strobe light, but the installation did work afterwards.

Second installation is fine

As we say, the instructions are obvious after you've been through them once. So when we then went through the same process to add our first smart outlet, everything went swimmingly — until it didn't.

Every part of that setup was as quick and easy as you'd hope and right now we can turn on our kitchen kettle using it. We can turn on an office heater too. It's just that there is one single lamp that we cannot control via an Ikea Tradfri outlet and absolutely no earthly reason why not.

Then the outlet is one of the few Tradfri that doesn't come with its own steering device. That's fine, we're never going to use these things after we've paired devices to our app, and we still had the one from the bulb going spare.

That worked fine, that was smoothly easy to use in setting up the outlet, except that every time we picked it up, a lamp turned on.

Ikea Tradfri in use

We actually liked the idea that you could use the steering device as a physical switch or dimmer. It's nothing short of excellent that you could show it to the members of your household who are never going to open Apple's Home app to turn on a light.

Only, when using the steering device as a dimmer, it is just too slow. Yet again, it's slow enough that you think you haven't used it, so you end up rotating the device and then the light careers all over the place. There's definitely no fine-grain control here.

These steering devices are the weak spot in Ikea's HomeKit devices, but they're not going away. Not when a physical switch fits so well into the company's approach to all lighting.

Once you're into HomeKit, though, you are likely to end up with a landfill of these now pointless devices. Fortunately, you're also going to end up with a series of Tradfri devices that work very well with the Home app.

That's especially true with the Tradfri outlets, which only had HomeKit compatibility added to them in April 2019. They're quite small, quite slim, at least compared to other smart outlets, and they're solid.

Ikea's outlet is comparatively slim. Shown here are the UK models of Eve Energy's smart plug (left) and Ikea's (right)
Ikea's outlet is comparatively slim. Shown here are the UK models of Eve Energy's smart plug (left) and Ikea's (right)

In operation, you can hear a click when the outlet turns on, but that's rather satisfying. We don't get that with rivals such as the more expensive Eve Energy one and have to trust the Home app when it tells us that's on. We've had the odd occasion where that has meant that a heater plugged into that continued to be on longer than we realised.

The bulbs, too, are mostly very good. Ikea bulbs are taller than Phillips Hue ones, though. We did find that they poked out of one lamp too much and were too big for one ceiling shade.

We had hoped that the Ikea bulbs would be brighter as that's our chief criticism of Hue ones. And they are brighter officially, with a Hue we tried being 806 lumens and the Ikea white one being 1,000 lumens. But in use there was no obvious difference.

You can buy color Tradfri bulbs, but, curiously, they're actually a lot dimmer at 600 lumens.

Ikea's bulbs (right) are taller than Phillips Hue ones (left). Notice the old-style bayonet cap on the bottom of the Hue. Phillips sells both bayonet and screw-fit bulbs. Ikea only makes screw ones, but does sell adaptors.
Ikea's bulbs (right) are taller than Phillips Hue ones (left). Notice the old-style bayonet cap on the bottom of the Hue. Phillips sells both bayonet and screw-fit bulbs. Ikea only makes screw ones, but does sell adaptors.

We were expecting to find that Ikea bulbs were slower to switch on than Hue ones, but without getting out a stopwatch, that didn't seem to be the case. They are noticeably, irritatingly slow when you control them with the physical steering device, but not when you use the Home app.

Curate's egg

Our sole criticism of Ikea's Tradfri range is how hard we found it to manage this installation and setup using the intermediary of a seemingly pointless steering device. If you wanted to say that this was our fault, though, go right ahead and we wouldn't disagree in the slightest.

We really did find that first one baffling and doubtlessly our confusion made it worse, made it necessary to end up un-pairing and re-pairing needlessly.

Every single time we've tried setting up any Ikea Tradfri device since that first one, however, it has gone perfectly.

So if it's a cumbersome system compared to the likes of Phillips Hue lights, it works just fine in the end and hopefully few people will have our problems. We'd still like to fathom out why that one solitary lamp won't light, mind.

With that one oddity, though, what we've got now is a bunch of Ikea smart devices that we're very happy with. That's the crucial thing because, again, it isn't enough to just make HomeKit devices cheap, they have to be good and these are.

Then the idea that Ikea is making all of these cheaper across the board isn't quite true, but it's near enough. A single Ikea bulb costs about the same $15 as a white-only Phillips Hue bulb, for instance. The Phillips bridge is a lot more than the Ikea gateway, though.

And the smart outlets are a steal. Ten bucks (from Ikea directly, currently more from Amazon) for an outlet is amazing when the majority of rivals cost $40, $50 or more.

When outlets were all that expensive, buying one was not a casual purchase. Now it's so much more cheaper that you can try it out, you can get into HomeKit much more easily.

A UK Ikea store's promotion of its smart lighting system.
A UK Ikea store's promotion of its smart lighting system.

And people are going to buy this out because they're going to find them. It's surprisingly not that easy to search for 'HomeKit' on — you can do it and you'll get some results, but just a fraction of what's available. However, it's a lot easier than it is on Amazon where searching for HomeKit first gets you a torrent of non-HomeKit devices that by chance just happen to work with Amazon's rival system.

In store, the Tradfri range is plentiful and maybe even the most prominent of all Ikea's lighting. That's because while the range is sold in the same indistinguishable white boxes as all the other many, many lighting options there, in the store we visited, the Tradfri range was being promoted with a video extolling smart devices in general.

We'd like those white boxes to be clearer — you can be holding two boxes in the store with quite different prices and only guess that one is a color bulb instead of a white one, for instance.

However, what we really want is more, please. We'd love to see an Ikea Tradfri outlet strip, for instance, and we're now definitely looking forward to the Tradfri smart blind that's due out later this year.

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